Queer Theory: a Revolutionary Approach to Equality?
The word “queer” has been understood throughout many centuries to mean “strange”, “odd”, “abnormal”, or even “sick” (Halperin, 2003). Its etymology, while being unclear, seems to reassemble it to the German word “quer”, which in the early 16th century meant “oblique” or “perverse”. Later on, and in an attempt to offend and ostracize non-normative people, the term “queer” began to be commonly applied to lesbians and gay men, who in turn claimed this terminology as their own, empowering themselves by changing its meaning. Nowadays, while “queer” is still associated with the LGBTQ+ community, the word is no longer understood as a synonym of “weird” or “odd”, but is instead associated with terms such as “disruptive”, “non-conforming”, and ultimately “free” – free from labels, heteronormativity , or binarity.
Queer Theory, on the other hand, is a relatively new term. The expression first came into being as Teresa de Lauretis, a Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, coined it as the title of a Conference that she held in February of 1990 (Halperin, 2003) on an introduction to “Lesbian and Gay Sexualities”. Her intentions, she admitted, were deliberately to provoke disruption, as the term “queer” was still fairly linked to “oddness”. As LGBTQ+ studies started to settle as an academic field, Lauretis felt the need of establishing a space where this new academic branch could evolve free from homogenizing discourse and “escape from the hegemony of white, male, middle class models of analysis.” (Halperin, 2003). In other words, it was not only important that this new field defied the status quo, as it actually ought to disrupt it in order to subsist and evolve within the academia. Queer theory was meant to work as a form of resistance to dominant discourses (Jagose, 2009) – as a consequence “queer” quickly left its social sphere, where it was only perceived as a lifestyle, to expand into a groundbreaking political statement.
Kathy Rudy, who wrote “Queer Theory and Feminism”, stated that queer theory may be based on many assertions, one being the following: “being queer is not a matter of being gay (…) but rather of being committed to challenging that which is perceived as normal.” (Rudy, 2000). Furthermore, queer theory also stands on the belief that gender and biological sex, like sexual preference, are merely a social construction. Gender, for instance, is commonly perceived as either of the two sexes – female or male. However, unlike biological sex, gender is solely considered in reference to social and cultural characteristics (e.g. women wear dresses, men wear pants; women have long hair; men have short hair). As such, gender can turn out to be a very blurry line for those who do not comply to normative expectations regarding apparel, looks, or roles – “non-binary” identity is a result of this binding division. This identity describes people who do not align themselves with a gender that is solely female or male. In other words, non-binary people fall out of the gender binary because they do not submit to the social expectations that derive from either one of the genders. In turn, sexual preference, or rather the belief that heterosexuality is the “normal”/“primal” sexual orientation, is settled on grounds that prioritize human reproduction over human relations, which is simply not the case for most social connections. If the purpose of romantic relationships is not exclusively reproductive, why should there be a ruling sexual preference? Can’t people love each other for reasons that go beyond sex? What is so fundamentally different between men and women, other than their biological characteristics? Non-binary identity surely poses that question.
Considering these standpoints, it is quite clear that queer and feminist theories can meet on many ends – one of them being the resistance to dominant discourses, e.g. the patriarchy. However, while feminists advocate the emancipation of women, queers put into question the validity of this categorization, as they argue that identities such as race, gender, sexual preference or nationality are designed to exclude some faction of the population (Rudy, 2000). As so, queer theorists claim that “to think of women's liberation as a separate event involving 'women only,' (…) is not only to miss the complexities of oppression [but] also to assume and posit the very category that itself perpetuates injustice” (Rudy, 2000). In this sense, queer theory was able to revolutionize the means through which we should attempt to come closer to equality within society. The aim is not to liberate black people, women, gay people, or any other groups that are targets of discrimination, but to defy instead, as a whole, the very system that imposed this categorization.
The dismantlement of gender norms, which are supported and encouraged by the patriarchy (along with systemic racism, classism, homophobia, etc.) needs primarily to come from a place of questioning the origins that led to such a division within society in the first place. It is not sustainable to keep accommodating solutions to specific problems if it is the structure, as a whole, that is fundamentally flawed.
If you are interested in learning more about queerness or non-binary identity, please click on the link below.
“What’s Underneath” is a Youtube video series that features men, women and non-gender-specific people, telling their stories while slowly removing their adornments and clothes. This project aims to show vulnerability and realness while approaching many important issues, such as gender identity, body image, ableism, among others.
This episode, featuring Kamil Oshundara, walks you through non-binary identity, the importance of feeling in alignment with yourself and in your own body, and the journey some people go through to get there.
Article by Rita Alfaiate
Rudy, K. (2000). Queer Theory and feminism. Women's Studies: An interdisciplinary journal.
Jagose, A. (2009). Feminism's Queer Theory. Feminism & Psychology.
Halperin, David M. (2003). The Normalization of Queer Theory. Journal of Homosexuality.
Duong, Kevin. (2012). What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about Intersectionality?. Politics & Gender.